Saturday, May 05, 2012

Cinco de Mayo: Two Battles, One Day -- 150 Years Ago

Cinco de Mayo has evolved into a nifty celebration of Mexican culture, eh? Seems like ever more so, even in the last twenty plus years, and I'm all for it. 

Which reminds me of how vital it is to consider and absorb North American history as a seamless web, giving more serious weight to developments in Canada and Mexico in the United States, which would include much more about Mexican and French as well as Spanish, British and First Nation influence on politics and culture.

Back to Cinco de Mayo. Besides being fun (now), the date commemorates the 1862 Battle of Puebla, a Mexican victory over French invaders. Probably less known in the USA is the French capture of Mexico City afterwards, and the installment of Maximilian, a young Hapsburg, as Emperor, during the American Civil War. And how about a dose of the French Foreign Legion -- in Mexico?

Not to mention the eventual withdrawal of French forces, followed by the defeat of Maximillian's own loyalists by Mexican republican forces under Benito Juárez and others. While in charge in 1865, Max had ordered the summary execution of republican prisoners, so it was no accident that when he himself was captured by republican enemies, he was executed, too. The practice of shooting prisoners was an old one. (Painting by Édouard Manet, 1868).

If we go beyond the immediate basis for Cinco de Mayo, we'd also take a closer look at the Mexican-American War, since the French had basically followed the American (and earlier Spanish) route to Mexico City. And then we'd come across how the entire area of California and present-day Southwestern US was sheared off from Mexico. And then what would we do with that knowledge? That's a complication with history: the more you look, the more there is to consider. Which reminds me, today Metro Puebla has a population of nearly 2.7 million people.

Now for the other Cinco de Mayo engagement: The Battle of Williamsburg, Virginia, May 5, 1862, during the American Civil War. This was a delaying action fought between Confederate forces under General Joseph E. Johnston and advancing Union forces under General George B. McClellan. To contemplate the difference in scale between these two North American battles fought exactly 150 years ago today, consider that Puebla saw about 11,000 troops battling it out, with perhaps 1,100 casualties. At Williamsburg, between 70,000 and 75,000 troops were engaged or present, suffering some 4,000 casualties. And yet you'd probably never heard of the Battle of Williamsburg -- at least until now. At the time, this Confederate action staggered and delayed the Federal advance on Richmond, buying time for a buildup that would result in the next sometimes forgotten big battle of 1862: Seven Pines.

And now for May 5, 2012. I'm thinking that, like today's winner of the Kentucky Derby, I'll Have Another. How about you? 

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

Today's Rune: Partnership. 

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